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ON HOCKEY: Season of Struggles Has Taught Harvard How to Prevail

Junior forward Tom Cavanagh erased the two-goal deficit Harvard found itself in at the end of the first period Saturday.
Junior forward Tom Cavanagh erased the two-goal deficit Harvard found itself in at the end of the first period Saturday.
By Jon PAUL Morosi, Crimson Staff Writer

ALBANY, N.Y.—A towel draped around his neck, Harvard captain Kenny Smith walked through the bowels of Pepsi Arena beside coach Mark Mazzoleni late Saturday night.

They would soon meet with the media and talk about a lifeless season turned magical, Smith’s serendipitous, game-winning snapper and a 4-2 victory over Clarkson that delivered the school’s second ECAC title in three seasons.

But Mazzoleni couldn’t wait for some reporter to ask Smith about his championship-clinching strike with 38 seconds remaining. He had to know the details. Now.

“You pick it or just throw it?” Mazzoleni inquired.

Smith smiled like he just swiped the chocolate milk from your cafeteria tray. He explained how Brendan Bernakevitch won the draw back to him, though it was supposed to go to Noah Welch. How he peered through the cluster of bodies. How he watched his shot tuck under the crossbar.

Mazzoleni nodded. The explanation sufficed. After all, did it really matter how it all came to be? Who cares if Smith knew exactly where that shot was going? It went in, didn’t it?

After all, you shouldn’t argue about the means when the end is everything you hoped for.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the great lesson behind the Crimson’s 2003-2004 season, an odyssey of extremes six months and counting.

There are similarities between this title and the 2002 championship, which Harvard also rallied to win after a sub-.500 regular season. Even the same NCAA opponent (Maine) awaits.

The 2002 team was an underdog in every sense. It underperformed during the regular season, had little big-game experience and was very young. But it also had one big advantage: its own ignorance.

Here were 17 freshmen and sophomores, too green to realize the magnitude of what they were doing. If they had stopped to think they had little business winning a championship, they probably wouldn’t have. They were fresh faces, talented and charmingly cocky, and their title had the unmistakable “first-time” feel that can’t be trumped.

“I thought we were going to win it every year,” Welch said.

But one season ago, Cornell swiped the Whitelaw Cup from Harvard’s grasp in the final minute—a collective punch in the jewels that, even in the glow of Saturday’s victory, wasn’t far from this team’s consciousness. “We remember,” Smith said.

And maybe, after the satisfaction of this title, that’s not such a bad thing. There seems to be something to the “sweeter a second time” adage. Last week, Welch said not winning in 2003 “made us appreciate [the 2002 title] more.”

For the same reason, what happened Saturday wasn’t just a bunch of guys winning a trophy. It was an experienced, confident, mature team—with full knowledge of how hard it is to win championships—overcoming memories of last year’s title game and this year’s dismal regular season.

On top of the inherently nerve-racking nature of playoff hockey, where wayward puck bounces end careers, this Crimson team remained unfazed and unwavering in confronting its demons.

As the No. 6 seed, Harvard was not the favorite on paper. But the locker room reached a different conclusion. “We had this quiet confidence,” Welch said.

Maybe that was why, as crazed as the celebration scene was—gloves, sticks and helmets littering the Harvard zone like a yard sale—you knew these guys had done this all before. The veterans’ demeanor conveyed a realization that they won’t have many more chances in life to hug their best buddies and roommates with the knowledge that they just did something an entire university can take pride in.

They say, ‘It takes one to know one.’ That’s true of champions, too. And these guys, an experienced, battle-tested bunch, celebrated like they knew they had done something special, from the disappointing season-opener against Brown to Saturday’s title-clincher.

“I wouldn’t change a thing, even though we underachieved,” Welch said. “What we went through, the way we rose above it, we’re better men for it.”

Stories like these are what keep us coming back to sports, at Harvard or anywhere else. Not to mention the fact that these are our peers. Guys we see in classes. Guys we see at parties. Guys who like to hang out at the Kong.

But they did something on Saturday that 6,489 people—including several dozen Harvard students—paid to watch. They made memories for a lot of people, themselves included, and did so not because they put their struggles behind them, but because they embraced them—every injury, every loss, every miscue—as part of the their identity.

As Tyler Kolarik recalled afterward, in the words of his best friend, fellow senior forward Rob Fried: “It’s about the process.” This year’s “process” wasn’t always easy—not for Mazzoleni, not for Smith, not for Fried or Kolarik or anyone else. But now, as Welch pointed out, they’re all “better men for it.”

Not everything went according to plan this season for the Harvard men’s hockey team. Not by a long shot. Then again, things didn’t exactly go according to plan before Kenny Smith saw the puck on his stick late Saturday night.

But that didn’t turn out too badly now, did it?

—Staff writer Jon Paul Morosi can be reachd at

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